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Personal areas of focus in history

Posted in Academia, Reading by Alex L. on December 12, 2016

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About a year ago, I created a list for myself of personal areas of focus in history. Each item on the list was based approximately around a hypothetical “lifetime” that may have taken place at an interesting period of history. The idea was to help me immerse myself in this handful of “lifetimes” and to become an expert of sorts in the social milieu that was around at that particular time.

In practical terms, this was meant as a guide to focus my history reading and follow the threads of key themes. Another way to look at it is a set of specializations in history for myself, though I am no academic. This list should also shed light on my biases and why I choose to feature certain books and articles over others on this blog and on the History Considered Podcast. So without further ado, I’m going to share my list below.

  1. Classical Greece, c. 428-347 B.C. From Plato’s birth to his death, with a special focus on what contributed to the flourishing and decline of Athens.
  2. Antebellum United States, c. 1787-1865. From the Constitutional Convention to the end of the Civil War, with a special focus on debates about the Constitution.
  3. Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia, c. 1855-1928. From the reign of Alexander II to the end of the New Economic Policy (NIP), with a special focus on how revolutionary workers’ movements were taken over by an authoritarian regime.
  4. World Wars, c. 1870-1945. From the Franco-Prussian War to the end of World War II, with a special focus on public policy debates among Allied nations about how to deal with Hitler’s Germany before the outbreak of war.
  5. Current Events, c. 1985+. From perestroika to today, with a broad focus.
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A balanced media diet

Posted in Journals, Politics, Reading, Television by Alex L. on November 28, 2016

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Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.

TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.

There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)

New books with alternate views on history (Spring 2016)

Posted in Books, Culture, Reading, Stories, Storytelling, War by Alex L. on May 28, 2016

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I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.

The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.

The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.

I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.

The first restaurants

Posted in Books, Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on August 29, 2013

Invention of the Restaurant coverAcademic writing does not necessarily have to be boring. I was reminded of this while reading Rebecca L. Spang’s book on a specific subject in French history, titled The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. I picked this book up at the library because I have been interested in cooking lately, and one of the best ways for me to sustain my curiosity in a topic is to learn about its history.

One of the first recipes in a cookbook that has inspired my recent culinary adventures, Classic Techniques for Fine Cooking, is a beef consommé. This meal, if prepared correctly, takes many hours to make and produces basically a light appetizer of delicious broth with a few veggies thrown in for substance. It seems almost like a waste of time, but I found out that these clear soups have a special place in the history of French cuisine.

The first restaurants were opened in France in the eighteenth century and served these clear soups exclusively. These restaurants capitalized on the popular beliefs of the time that those suffering from weak digestion or “weak chests” could restore themselves with cups of bouillon, which had all of the flavors of meat and vegetables without their actual substance.

Spang traces this development in The Invention of the Restaurant. Because she incorporates biographical information and cultural detail into her narrative, her work still appeals to the public even though it’s written in an academic style. I’m enjoying reading this book, and it inspires my experiments in both the kitchen and in the library.

Used books bought: ancient and aviation history

Posted in Books, Hobbies by Alex L. on June 26, 2013

I bought some great books at a used book store earlier this week. It’s dangerous for me to stroll into such an establishment on a university campus, especially when they’re running a “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” sale. They recently received a collection of military history books — many of them titles about aviation during WWI. This was my undoing. I purchased:

  • Knights of the Air by Ezra Bowen  (bought it mostly for the unique photos and illustrations)
  • The First Air Campaign: August 1914 – November 1918 by Eric and Jane Lawson  (a well-written overview of the conflict — reading this now)
  • Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War by Bert Frandsen  (a scholarly account of the first American combat aviators)
  • Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron by Peter Kilduff  (a scholarly biography about the famous German flyer)
  • Gunning for the Red Baron by Leon Bennett  (a unique scientific look at the physics of aerial gunnery and maneuvering)
  • Bombers 1914-1919: Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft by Kenneth Munson  (handy visual reference for obscure aircraft types)

On my way out the door, I couldn’t resist these endcap enticements (both at first glance revealing an appealing writing style — rare in this genre):

  • Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) by W.L. Rogers
  • The Ancient Engineers: Technology and Invention from the Earliest Times to the Renaissance by L. Sprague de Camp

Shout out to Howard’s Books in Evanston for facilitating some impulsive buys (all totaling under $50) that upon later reflection I don’t regret making.

On “The Cruel Sea” during WWII

Posted in Film, Reading, War by Alex L. on April 2, 2013

HMCS Regina, a Canadian Flower-class corvetteSailors who sailed on Allied corvette ships on the Atlantic Ocean during WWII had an interesting experience of war. Their days were filled with repetitive strain. Escort runs accompanying Allied convoys lasted several week at a time, each day being divided into four hour on-watch and four hour off-watch segments for the crew. The Flower class corvettes were the workhorses of these escort missions, but they were tremendously unstable in heavy seas. And in the North Atlantic, the weather more often found the sailors rocking and slamming against ship parts rather than enjoying leisurely calm waters.

This routine repeated itself endlessly for many servicemen for up to six years. The nature of the fight against their main enemy — German U-boat submarines — meant that they may only see their enemy face-to-face only a handful of times during the entire war. When the corvettes were alerted to the presence of U-boats, it was more often than not in the form of a merchant ship violently and suddenly exploding in the convoy. Then the rescue of survivors and the hunting of the U-boats would begin.

It was a lonely grind of a job. Most of the time, serving on an escort ship meant enduring the violent seas rather than fighting furtive German submarines. That is why Nicholas Monsarrat named his classic novel about two British escort ships in the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea. A movie was made in 1953 based on the book. I watched the movie first and then read Monsarrat’s novel. Both are excellent, but I enjoyed the film a little more. The latter, directed by Charles Frend, was a rare find for me because it’s the closest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of style to that other classic film of naval warfare, “Das Boot,” a personal favorite of mine.

For many years, I’ve been interested in submarine warfare during WWII. Reading and watching a film about the hunters on the other side of the periscope opened my eyes to the interesting experiences of the Allied sailors on corvettes, frigates, and destroyers who protected merchant convoys like shepherds against the wolves that lurked beneath the waves.

New history books (August-December 2012 edition)

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on December 31, 2012

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Below are new books published in the second half of 2012 that seemed to me like really interesting reads in my favorite fields (ancient philosophy and military history). This is a condensed version of my typical monthly books post, but I hope to return to my usual reviews and previews again next month.

December

Churchill and Seapower. Christopher M. Bell. Churchill was a leading naval strategist in both the First and Second World War. This is the first systematic study of his role in naval affairs and should be an informative read.

Aviation (rarities)

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander

Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau

The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno by Christopher M. Rein

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton

Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by William B. Ecker and Kenneth V. Jack

Notable mentions

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy by Ronald Utt

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

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New history articles (August-December 2012 edition)

Posted in Journals, Reading by Alex L. on December 30, 2012

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Since I’ve fallen behind on my monthly articles and books posts, I’ve decided to condense the past several months into a couple final posts for the year. That way, I can start 2013 afresh with the regular format, reviewing and previewing books and articles every month. Below are the articles for the second half of 2012 that interested me but that I haven’t had a chance to review on this blog.

December

“Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line by Robert Pippin in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2013).

“How Motion Pictures Industrialized Entertainment” by Gerben Bakker in The Journal of Economic History (December 2012).

“Ethical Progress as Problem-Resolving” by Amanda Roth in The Journal of Political Philosophy (December 2012).

November

“Intuiting Gods: Creed and Cognition in the Fourth Century” by Marilyn Dunn in Historical Reflections (Winter 2012).

“Imagining the Unconscious” by Wouter J. Hanegraaffa in Intellectual History Review (Winter 2012).

“Overshadowed New York” by Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman in American Literary History (Winter 2012).

(more…)

New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

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Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

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‘Low work’ over the Western Front

Posted in European, Reading, War by Alex L. on October 18, 2012

Winged Victory book coverComedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.

It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.

The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps. (more…)